I love Indian handicrafts; it attracts not only my creative side, but it also makes me wonder about the dedication that people have in creating and continuing a tradition. My itchy feet recently took me to this small relatively unknown town in the state of Karnataka, referred to most as the Whispering town. That is an odd term to use isn’t it? Well the town whispers mostly about its rich history and it has an equally rich artistic culture.
Black Magic might seem like an odd term to start this post, but truly I was transfixed while watching the masters working this art. Let me introduce to another forgotten history of my country – Bidri Art, pronounced as B-D-Ree. Well I will illuminate you with the history in my next post, but let me introduce you to this beautiful piece of work.
Though the name may suggest the origin to be the town of Bidar in Karnataka; Lucknow and Murshidabad are equally renowned for this beautiful handiwork. 500 years is a long time to nurture and perfect an art form and when you actually view it on a firsthand basis, you will agree with the same assessment. The tools used may seem crude and the effort may seem tiring, but the detailing which is involved during each step reflects an elegance and dexterity that can not be neglected.
Developed in the Bahmani Kingdom, Bidri work reflects the style of Turkey, Persian and Arabic native styles and has been patronized by successor kingdoms. From what I learnt from the master craftsmen, Bidri artifacts were a popular items in the Nizam palace.
Every art is made using various moulds and shaped with an alloy of 6% Copper and 94% Zinc as a metal base. The black color on the base metal is derived due to heating of copper and zinc surface gently and covered with the Bidar fort earth and sal ammoniac.
In Bidri art, an alloy of Copper and Zinc, Gunmetal is used. Various moulds are used by the manufacturers giving shape to this alloy. The master craftsmen was actually enthusiastic about detailing out each steps involved in the making of each artifact. Each item takes a minimum of 2 days to complete.
- Casting. Each cast is prepared by the craftsmen preparing a moulding clay using sand, oil and resin. To this surface, borax is added in order to prevent the metals from sticking to the surface. The alloy is then melted and poured into the moulds and left to solidify.The rough cast is surface is thereby smoothened and filed using sand paper and a copper sulphate solution is rubbed on to the surface to impart a dark color.
- Engraving. Hand tracing is done using chisels. For engraving itself, five different tools are used.
3. Inlaying. Pure silver wires or sheets are then laid into each grooves with a hammer (as you can see from the video.)
4. Oxidizing. This process involves the use of earth from the fort of Bidar (the then capital of Bahamani Kingdom) and hence the name. When the item is put into a boiling solution containing the Bidri mud, it imparts jet black color to the metal base leaving the silver to shine through.
You must be wondering, why such a great importance is placed on mere earth. When I asked Mr. Rafiq, another master craftsmen, he said that the soil is devoid of sunlight and rain for many years thus giving it great oxidizing properties. Literature talks about how the fort was build around a mining area leaving the soil with metal extracts. Mr. Rafiq also imparted a small bit of wisdom behind the selection process of the soil; the quality of Bidri earth is tasted by the artisans before they determine its worthiness.
5. Polishing. This is the step which actually attracts the attention of the buyer. The entire surface is rubbed with coconut oil or any other oil, which shines the silver while deepening the coat of black matte.
Commonly used designs – Geometric designs are the most commonly used design that I have witnessed in the three shops in Bidar which focus completely on Bidar work. Verses from Holy Quran are equally popular among Western tourists. Flowers, creeping vines and peacocks and elephants are equally popular.
From where to buy in Bidar –
- Raj Bidri Art and Crafts
- Rafiq’s Bidri Art and Crafts
Price – The price range varies from 30 to 30,000 and depends mainly on the size of the article and the type of the design which is being inlaid. The ones I bought, the smallest one came to about 1250 rupees since the work was done both on the top as well as completely around the box. The bigger one was however priced at 750 rupees due to the nature and amount of design.
It was truly a pleasure to witness perfection being shaped in front of my very eyes. The dexterity and confidence is something that I will never forget. The pride and joy that was reflected amongst the craftsmen was equally noteworthy. Their enthusiasm to answer questions and show their craftsmanship is something that I was honored to witness. There was a time when Bidri craft was a tradition that used to be passed on through generations; but time, finances, lack of passion and survival instinct has taken over traditions. State government has started intiatives in coordnation with various NGOs to ensure the survival of this art form. Let’s hope it works out.